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Angels are swept by the Rays as problems and frustrations grow

Tampa Bay Rays' Manuel Margot steals home to score as Angels pitcher Aaron Slegers misses the throw.
Tampa Bay Rays’ Manuel Margot steals home to score as Angels pitcher Aaron Slegers misses the throw during the eighth inning on Thursday at Angel Stadium.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The first game of the Angels post-Albert Pujols era looked a lot like the ones that preceded it.

At first, there was reason to hope. Shohei Ohtani blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the third. Starting pitcher Andrew Heaney exited the game with a three-run lead after 6 ⅔ scoreless innings.

Then, there was a frustrating collapse. Reliever Mike Mayers surrendered a solo home run in the seventh and three more runs that flipped the game in the eighth. A passed ball against catcher Kurt Suzuki allowed the go-ahead run to score. And the Tampa Bay Rays piled on from there.

In the end, it added up to another disappointing result, an 8-3 loss that marked the Angels fifth-straight defeat and dropped them to 13-17, the third-straight year they’ve reached the 30-game mark at least four games below .500.

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Before the game, the club had announced a major shake up, designating Pujols for assignment in a move that will ultimately lead to the first baseman’s release after 10 largely underwhelming seasons with the club.

Thursday night served up a reminder that there are many other issues for the Angels to address.

“There’s baseball frustration going on,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “But you can’t let that get the best of you. We have to keep working through it.”

Albert Pujols was the best player in baseball when the Angels signed him in 2011, but he couldn’t match his accomplishments from his St. Louis days.

It all started well. Heaney stranded runners on the corners in the first and struck out the side in the second. In the third, Juan Lagares and Phil Gosselin hit back-to-back doubles before Ohtani clobbered a 428-foot blast to right, putting him back in a tie atop the MLB home run leaderboard with his 10th of the season.

Heaney continued to deal thereafter, recording his second 10-strikeout performance of the season while yielding only four hits and one walk.

“I hit my spots better, put myself into better counts and didn’t have quite so many useless pitches,” said Heaney, who has a 2.28 ERA in his past five starts. “I feel behind at some point, but had great pitches going that I felt comfortable throwing for strikes.”

Despite Heaney’s high pitch count — he threw 110 pitches on the night — he was sent back to the mound to begin the seventh and retired the inning’s first two batters.

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That’s when Maddon went to the bullpen. And almost immediately, the troubles began.

Mayers gave up a home run in his first at-bat, a towering drive to left by Mike Zunino, then quickly ran into trouble after returning to the mound in the eighth inning.

Brett Phillips hit a leadoff single. Randy Arozarena doubled him home. And after a mound visit from Angels pitching coach Matt Wise, Manuel Margot tied it at 3-3 with a sharp ground ball to right.

“We needed that win dearly,” Mayers said. “That one falls squarely on me.”

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It wasn’t until after Mayers’ departure, however, that the Rays finally took the lead.

Reliever Aaron Slegers walked Austin Meadows in his first at-bat to put runners on first and second, then fired an inside sinker two pitches that got past Suzuki and skipped toward the backstop. Margot and Meadows were already attempting a double steal on the play, and Margot simply kept on running all the way home, sliding in safely as Slegers tried to cover the plate.

A merry-go-round ensued after that, with six of the Rays’ next eight batters reaching base in what became a seven-run eighth inning — the final blow in the Angels’ first winless series of the season.

“Every team understands those stretches, they come, they go, and you just have to weather it,” Heaney said, adding: “When you’re in a streak, going the way we’re going right now, it feels like no matter how much of a lead you have, no matter how late in the game it is, no matter how much you score early, no matter what’s going on — sometimes it just feels like nothing goes your way.”

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And lately, it has seemed like the Angels problems are only growing by the day.

They’ve been battling injuries for most of the last month, with reliever Chris Rodriguez (right shoulder inflammation) and catcher Max Stassi (concussion) on Thursday becoming the latest players to be placed on the injured list. Justin Upton (right knee contusion) was also out of the starting lineup Thursday, though could be back in the coming days.

Their lineup has suffered from inconsistent production. Thursday was the 16th time in the past 20 games the Angels failed to score more than four runs.

Albert Pujols was designated for assignment by the Angels. The future Hall of Famer was in the last season of a 10-year, $240-million contract.

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And their bullpen has increasingly lost its form, especially late in contests. In the seventh inning or later, Angels pitchers had a 3.00 ERA over the first 15 games of the season, but a 7.65 ERA in the 15 games since — including late blown leads in each of their past two games.

“We have to finish games off, we have to add on runs, all the little things that add up,” Maddon said. “The margins are so small. It’s no longer a razor-thin line between winning and losing — it’s laser-thin. And we have to get on the right side of that.”

Mayers’ postgame frustration encapsulated the mood of the team, his voice hoarse while he stared somberly at a video camera in front of him during a videoconference with reporters.

“It’s been a weird week, that’s for sure. Lots of guys coming in. Lots of guys leaving,” he said. “When you get to September every year, they talk about, ‘Were teams able to weather the storm?’”

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The Angels are in the eye of one right now. And after Thursday, they’re still searching for the right answer.

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